Report on the Nontheist Friends interest group at New England Yearly Meeting

I was reluctant at first about hosting the Nontheist Friends interest group at New England Yearly Meeting this year (August 4-9, 2007 in Smithfield, RI), because I’m not very well-versed in the experience of other nontheist Friends — I haven’t even read Godless for God’s Sake yet — and I’m not sure I agree with most nontheist Friends about the wisdom of remaining with our Religious Society. But I realized that the people who showed up were the real stars anyway, and I just had to kick things off.

The 7 pm business meeting ran long dealing with the FUM issue, so at 9 pm only my pal Zeke was in the room. But people kept trickling in until there were nine of us. I had expected somewhere between five and ten, since there was a big uptick in Tuesday night interest groups this year — we were “competing” with 13 other groups meeting on such topics as John Woolman College (which I was sad to miss), a NEYM Women’s Retreat, Rise Up Singing, and a slew of movie and photo showings.

After a little introduction, we went around saying our names, meetings, and what we mean (or meant, or thought others meant) by the word “God.” Most said they didn’t use the word, though one said explicitly that he came as an interested theist. I wrote most of the associations up on the chalkboard, and after we all had a turn I asked the group what they wanted to do for the rest of the time. I was prepared to talk about the history if they wanted, both in terms of “roots” and “flowers”, but felt (correctly, it turned out) that they might prefer talking about our own experiences and questions.

Thus we embarked on a group discussion for the remainder of the time, which of course is difficult to recreate. (My apologies to anyone present who I don’t represent well enough below.)

The main question that one Friend seemed to have was, Why would a nontheist be a Friend, or join any religious group at all? Another Friend, who was raised by Quaker parents and is currently an atheist, said there’s a difference between “why would such a person join?” and “why wouldn’t such a person leave?” I took him to be saying that once you’re a part of the community, you’re a part in multiple ways, and one difference isn’t going to destroy that bond. I also responded by saying that there’s a good argument for seeing Quakerism as not primarily about our beliefs, but about our experiences and practices, and that to many it is evident that nontheists can indeed participate in the life of a Quaker meeting as much as anyone else. I also referenced Robin Alpern’s essay “Why not join the Unitarians?”

There was a moment at one point where the “interested theist” Friend expressed some misgivings about his certainty of God’s existence, but then said that he was in his nineties, and without much time to engage in speculation — and he won’t have to wait long to find out firsthand anyway. He ended by saying, “I wouldn’t be surprised either way.”

“One way it’s hard to be surprised,” joked another, and we had a little laugh.

Another laugh was when we realized there were three people who all had held a certain yearly meeting office. “So this is what that job does to you!” someone said.

We also talked a little about the ambiguity of all this terminology. A moderate theist could be seen as a nontheist (and vice versa) depending on the definition of God at hand. For some “nontheist” might seem like just a euphemism for “atheist,” but I explained that most Friends who identify as nontheist mean it in a more “big tent” way, to include also agnostics, naturalists who still use the term “God” as a metaphor, and people with more liberalized conceptions of God. At this point I passed around a few copies of James Riemermann’s “What is a nontheist?”, which explains this point of view.

After this, one Friend who identified at first as agnostic then said he probably was more of a nontheist-leaning-agnostic. For him, a key part of why he felt he could not affirm particular religious beliefs and traditions was because of the arbitrariness of our births — Christianity makes more sense than Buddhism to people raised in the West, but that is simply due to acculturation, and doesn’t indicate any special rightness of the religion itself. How did I get to be the lucky one born into the right culture? he asked. I explained how I feel as though I could call myself a theist if I wanted to, since I do believe that reality transcends the self-created worlds in our heads. And that in doing so I don’t think I would be outside the liberal Quaker mainstream in terms of conceptions of God, but I feel more honest simply speaking of “reality” (and “love,” and many other concrete terms) instead of the impossible word “God”. Earlier one Friend had said something similar — preferring to use more specific alternative words.

I also passed around a “Resources” handout, which included URLs for the Nontheist Friends website and email list; David Rush’s survey of 199 nontheist Friends; the blogs Mind on Fire, Reaching for the Light, and my The Seed Lifting Up; and the Sea of Faith Network for at least a peek beyond the Quaker hedge. It also introduced the aforementioned book, which QuakerBooks of FGC may be out of for the moment, but they should be getting more, and in the meantime there’s the UK Quaker Bookshop. I had meant to print out some of the more personal stories from the site, but I ended up having less time to prepare than I expected.

On the way out, most of the small number of historical handouts I had printed (which we didn’t talk about) were taken, including the excerpts from the trial of James Nayler (1656), Jesse Holmes’s outreach letter “To the scientifically minded” (1928), and the statement from the first FGC workshop (1976).

We broke up a little prematurely when one Friend had to go, which often happens with interest groups, so I didn’t get a chance to take stock of what had happened for us at the end, or to nudge us towards some more challenging issues. But I’m happy with how it went.

[Cross-posted to The Seed Lifting Up]

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